Natural Remedies for Gastrointestinal Problems

by Rebecca Cherry, Pediatric Gastroenterologist

It seems that the older we get, the more we remind ourselves of our parents, and maybe even of our grandparents. And the more we learn about healthy lifestyles, the more we realize that some “old-fashioned” remedies were good ones. Although there are lots of medications available for common symptoms, more and more of us would rather pursue a natural option. Often, these treatments have good scientific evidence behind them! As a pediatric GI specialist, I meet many children with “stomach aches” of one kind or another. Herbal remedies have been found to help with a few different kinds of abdominal pain — and some of them might even be the same ones your grandma recommended.

Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, and the absence of an herb or product doesn’t mean that it is not effective. When brand names are included, it is because that specific product is the one used in research studies.

For colic:
The same herbs that soothe an adult’s stomach can soothe an infant’s. Fennel, chamomile, verbena, lemon balm, and licorice tea have been found to decrease fussiness in infants with colic.  In breastfed infants with colic, the probiotic L Reuteri DSM17938 (available under the brand BioGaia) was found in a research study to decrease fussiness by an average of 46 minutes per day. However, this effect was not seen in formula fed infants.

For nausea and upper abdominal pain:
Peppermint, ginger, and chamomile are all good for discomfort in the upper part of the GI tract. You can use them as teas, and in the case of ginger, as a candy. Something to keep in mind is that ginger- and mint-flavored products are just that…”flavored”; they do not contain any actual peppermint or ginger!

Several clinical trials are available for the herbal preparation STW5 (also called Iberogast). This product contains extracts from bitter candy tuft, chamomile flower, peppermint leaves, caraway fruit, licorice root, lemon balm leaves, angelica root, celandine herbs, and milk thistle fruit. Although we don’t have specific data in pediatrics, it seems to be very safe, and comes as a liquid.

Ginger can also be helpful for nausea, and can be given as a tea or in the form of a sucking candy.

For constipation:
Acacia fiber and psyllium fiber are both effective in decreasing the frequency of constipation-related abdominal pain. However, medical researchers note that it can be hard to get children to take these natural fibers due to taste and texture.

For bloating:
Pain associated with both bloating and constipation may respond to a combination of extracts from quebracho, conker tree, and peppermint. This combination is available under the brand name Atrantil. This is another product which has not yet been specifically studied in children.

In conclusion, herbal supplements can be an excellent addition to your “home pharmacy.” There are a couple of things to keep in mind, however. One is that when ordering herbal products on-line, it is best to get them directly from the manufacturer, if possible. That way, you can feel more confident that the product has been stored under the appropriate temperature control. Also, as with any treatment, be in touch with your doctor if you are not seeing improvement within a week or so. It may be time for an evaluation in the office, and possibly for testing. And of course, whenever a symptom is severe, or if your child has high fever, blood in the stool, or is unable to stay hydrated, let your doctor know right away.

Dr. Cherry is a Pediatric Gastroenterologist recognized for her clinical judgment, empathic personality, and lateral thinking.  She was educated at Harvard Medical School, with further training at Vanderbilt University, the University of Southern California, and the Harvard School of Public Health.  She has also completed extensive training in Clinical Hypnosis.  She currently serves on the Medical Advisory Committee of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Greater San Diego Chapter, and serves patients pro bono as part of the San Diego Angelman Syndrome “Clinic Without Walls.”  In her practice, Dr. Cherry incorporates the use of diet management, mind-body treatments, herbal supplements, and physical therapy, in addition to medications.  She sees infants, children, and adolescents for consultations, second opinions, and ongoing management of chronic gastrointestinal conditions. Dr. Cherry lives in Solana Beach with her husband and 3 children.  In her free time she enjoys long walks, puzzles, and storytelling. She is an enthusiastic volunteer with Words Alive, a local literacy organization.